The case for humanist philology

Reading ancient texts becomes harder as we lose knowledge of the familiar context their authors assume, what every schoolboy knows and what shapes them without their knowing it, as we too are shaped by other things. That might be a verbal echo of another, lost text, or the actual meaning of a word — dictionaries of dead languages are digests of the writings in them that have survived, a circularity not always virtuous enough. It is a way of life, the Lebenswelt of the poet’s circle. It is a culture’s view of itself and of human nature. It is the idle talk and slang of the piazza. Literature is often almost their only remaining trace, apart from the odd rubbish tip or casual graffitti. The attempt to understand it is therefore also a way of recovering knowledge of other ways of thinking and being. To do so means weighing every word, a task made more testing still by the imperfect preservation of those very words, copied and recopied over millennia by scribes set in their own ways. Finally we must listen to those ancient voices with fresh ears and in each generation make them our contemporaries again. Virgil and Du Fu are no good to anyone behind a glass case.

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